Home History of Hymns: "All Things Bright and Beautiful"

History of Hymns: "All Things Bright and Beautiful"

"All Things Bright and Beautiful"
Cecil Frances Alexander
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 147

Cecil Frances Alexander

“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.”

Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, born in 1818 in Dublin, Ireland, was the daughter and third child of the former Elizabeth Reed and Major John Humphreys of Norfolk, land-agent to 4th Earl of Wicklow and later to the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn.

The introverted Fanny, as she was known to her family and friends, showed interest in poetry and writing, the earliest of which first appeared in a family weekly magazine. She was greatly influenced by clergymen like the Rev. D. Walter Farquar Hook, who edited and wrote the preface to her first publication, Verses for Holy Season (1846).

John Keble was a proponent of the influential Oxford movement and an author of religious verse. His most important collection, The Christian Year, was one of Fanny’s favorites. After dedicating her first publication to Keble, the young Fanny approached him to write a preface for Hymns for Little Children (1848), which included some of her most famous hymns such as “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “Once in Royal David’s City” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away.”

In Keble’s brief preface, he notes that the proceeds of this publication were dedicated to Lady Harriet Howard’s school for deaf and dumb children, Fanny’s favorite charity. Although the hymns from these publications were intended for children, their simple language and imagery is widely popular among children of all ages.

In 1850, Fanny married William Alexander, rector of Termonamongan, who later became Bishop of Derry, Archbishop of Armagh and primate for all Ireland. The couple had two sons and two daughters. Following a personal tragedy, Alexander began to write hymns for adults, which culminated in her translation of a Gaelic poem called “St. Patrick’s Lorica” (or breastplate) into the hymn “I bind unto myself today.”

During her lifetime Alexander was known for her devotion to the poor, mentally handicapped, the deaf and the sick. Upon her death in 1895 in Londonderry, the cathedral bell began to ring announcing her passing to the city. Although unexpected by her family, there was a great outpouring of condolences from all over the nation.

The hymn “All things bright and beautiful,” based on the Apostles’ Creed section, “Maker of Heaven and Earth,” appears in The United Methodist Hymnal without stanzas three and six. Stanza three often has been eliminated due to its controversial nature regarding class equality:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

However, one must read this in light of a similar stanza written two years earlier in 1846 for the collection Verses for Holy Season:

The poor man in his straw-roofed cottage,
The rich man in his lordly hall,
The old man’s voice, the child’s first whisper,
He listens, and He answers all.

Here Alexander points out the equality in God’s eyes between old and young, rich and poor, and it is unlikely that she would reverse this expression two years later by omitting the example of old and young. According to her biographer, Valerie Wallace, Fanny was so impressed with her visit to Markree Castle that she had its appearance with the surrounding walls and gate-lodges in mind when she wrote that stanza.

One may find several tunes for this text in hymnals, but ROYAL OAK by Martin Shaw (1875-1958) provides a child-like setting that reaches all ages.

This hymn has become a popular poetic icon, not only by its publication in many hymnals throughout the English-speaking world but also through original musical settings by contemporary composers such as John Rutter—and of course, the unbelievable Monty Python parody, “All things dull and ugly.”

Ms. Byrd is a church music student of Dr. Michael Hawn at Perkins School of Theology.

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